Nobel Prize Winner to Describe Mechanisms Underlying Sense of Touch

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Ardem Patapoutian, PhD

Citation: Kidney News 15, 10/11

A winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine will discuss his work in a state-of-the-art lecture, titled “How Do You Feel? The Molecules That Sense Touch,” on Friday, November 3.

A molecular biologist and physiologist, Ardem Patapoutian, PhD, is the presidential endowed chair in neurobiology at Scripps Research and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Dr. Patapoutian considers the sense of touch unique because it perceives both physical stimuli (temperature and mechanical) and chemical stimuli (compounds that cause pain and itch). In each modality, touch neurons distinguish noxious from innocuous stimuli. The sensitization of touch neurons in response to injury and inflammation is the basis for many clinically relevant chronic pain states. The molecules that mediate detection of touch stimuli had been a long-standing mystery.

In the early 2000s, his laboratory began investigating how pressure is translated into nerve impulses. He noted that some cells gave off a measurable electric signal when they were poked and assumed that the cause was a receptor—an ion channel—on the cell membrane. His laboratory then identified the molecules that sense temperature and pressure involved in touch, pain, and regulating blood pressure.

Dr. Patapoutian's laboratory first identified and characterized ion channels activated by changes in thermal energy, thus functioning as the molecular thermometers of the body. A subset of these same ion channels also acts as polymodal chemosensors, playing an essential role in pain and inflammation.

His laboratory is also investigating ion channels that sense mechanical force, which are postulated to play critical roles in sensing touch and pain, sound, and more. The researchers recently identified mechanically activated cation channels that are expressed in many mechanosensitive cell types.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Dr. Patapoutian is also a co-recipient of the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience and the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award (all shared with David Julius, PhD).

A native of Lebanon, Dr. Patapoutian immigrated to the United States in 1986. He received his doctorate in biology from the California Institute of Technology in 1996 and joined the faculty of Scripps Research in 2000.